Interplanetary

Interplanetary

I initially learned of the British Interplanetary Society when I read Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Prelude to Space. This was in 1977 and I was a high school student. The novel was one of a handful of science fiction books in our school’s library. They were all classics and Prelude to Space excited my imagination and yearning to become either an engineer or scientist. In this 1947 novel the first manned mission to the Moon is launched from the Australian Outback. It is an international endeavor and is led, in part by a British organization called “Interplanetary.” Only later did I realize that this was actually a nod to the British Interplanetary Society of which Sir Arthur was a former chairman.

The organization was founded on October 13th 1933 by a group of people who were interested in spaceflight. The organization, since inception, is dedicated to creating, exploring, and promoting concepts, technologies, and information about spaceflight. This applies to activity in Earth orbit, within the solar system, and beyond. Even as a fledgling organization it initiated some ground-breaking work, including a 1938 design of a lunar lander, the patent for a spaceflight navigation aid, and conferences on artificial satellites and remote sensing of the Earth’s surface. NATO and other national organizations took interest. The BIS has an international membership and highly respected reputation.

BIS Moon Lander 1930s
Moon Lander Design from the 1930s study as featured in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society by RS Smith & HE Ross
BIS Meeting 1938
1938 meeting of the British Interplanetary Society and American Rocket Society. From l to r H.E. Ross, J.H. Edwards, H.E. Turner, R. Truax (in US navy uniform), R.A. Smith, M.K. Hanson, A.C. Clarke

Around the time I read Prelude to Space the BIS conducted studies related to interstellar flight. This included the famous design program for an interstellar probe called Daedalus. In recent times Daedalus has been revisited by the BIS and updated as the Icarus Project. More recently a study for a manned mission to the Martian north pole called Project Boreas was undertaken. The study looked at the advantages of establishing a scientific base at the planet’s north pole in terms of resource utilization and the ability of using the little settlement as a sort of beachhead to explore other parts of the planet.

bis daedalus
Design concept for unmanned interstellar probe “Daedalus”

The organization is very detailed when it undertakes such studies and applies solid engineering and scientific principles to its designs and reports. In many cases they serve as a touchstone and lay the foundation for follow-on work where such ideas become reality. Indeed, this fall has seen a symposium on new launcher systems and their potential impact on Mars exploration. And this November the BIS will offer a symposium on space elevator design and development. There seems to always be something new taking place at the British Interplanetary Society and it is certainly an organization to watch.

 

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International Asteroid Day

International Asteroid Day

I first learned of the potential threat of asteroids when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. As with all of Sir Arthur’s novels it is a book full of hope, speculation, wonder, and hard science. We travel with the crew of the exploration vessel Endeavour as it encounters a massive space vehicle from parts unknown that is just passing through our solar system. It’s a fabulous book and I pick it up from time to time and re-read it. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

The book begins on a bit of a grim note, however. It briefly mentions the Tunguska event of 30 June 1908 when a meteor or comet slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere and exploded with several megatons of energy high above the Siberian taiga. The airburst flattened millions of trees and devastated almost 2100 square kilometers of an unpopulated region.

Clarke goes on and describes a fictional event in the year 2077, when a large asteroid enters the atmosphere somewhere high above the Mediterranean Sea. Crossing the sky, it leaves a trail of devastation across southern Europe and northern Africa before it impacts northern Italy. I read this book in high school and the scenario left a deep impression on me. When the Chelyabinsk meteor and its shockwave struck in February of 2013 Clarke’s book immediately came to mind.

Clarke suggested that one of the remedies to avoid potential disaster was to use powerful arrays of optical telescopes and radars to catalog the many asteroids that cross Earth’s path. In the novel he called this observational campaign Project Spaceguard. It is one such telescope array that discovers the object Rama and drives the plot forward.

The Earth has been struck by asteroids many times. Evidence of this can be seen in places like Meteor Crater, Arizona. Earlier impacts include the devastating Chicxulub impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Perhaps lesser known is the Eltanin impact that struck the Pacific Ocean 2.5 million years ago. The Eltanin asteroid was 4 kilometers in diameter and left a crater 35 kilometers across on the ocean floor. It led to large tsunamis and was perhaps the trigger for an ice age. If an Eltanin happened tomorrow it would be a global catastrophe.

Since Clarke’s novel a number of efforts have been made to actively catalog near-Earth objects (NEOs). In a nod to Sir Arthur these efforts are collectively referred to as Project Spaceguard. Many scientists, amateur astronomers, and even governmental agencies around the world have become involved. This includes many notable writers, cosmonauts, astronauts, artists, and celebrities. Detection of a threatening asteroid would give us some lead time to prepare either for a disaster or, better yet, to put the energies and technologies of humanity forward to deflect a NEO. An asteroid strike is the only type of natural disaster that could potentially be prevented.

International Asteroid Day is an attempt to raise awareness of the hazard of NEOs. It also seeks to explore possible mitigation methods which could literally save the planet. Many activities related to the International Asteroid Day and Project Spaceguard are led by the B612 Foundation. One of the founders of the B612 Foundation is Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart. He and Brian May…who is both a celebrated guitarist for Queen as well as a PhD astrophysicist…helped establish Asteroid Day. According to the B612 Foundation’s website there is a working group in place that has three primary goals:

1. Employ available technology to detect and track Near-Earth Asteroids that threaten human populations via governments and private and philanthropic organisations.

2. A rapid hundred-fold acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.

3. Global adoption of Asteroid Day, heightening awareness of the asteroid hazard and our efforts to prevent impacts, on June 30 – with United Nations recognition.

Activity on these three tasks has been robust and the third action item has been achieved. There are many ongoing events and activities around the world today. There are also links and interesting interviews and videos at Asteroid Day.

Asteroid_Day_Logo_HQ

It should be noted that in recent years various exploration craft have visited both asteroids and comets. This small armada includes the Deep Impact mission, the Rosetta orbiter and Philae lander, NEAR-Shoemaker, and the Dawn spacecraft that is currently orbiting Ceres. In addition, the OSIRIS-REX craft is on its way to asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft’s acronym stands for: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. That’s a mouthful!

The “Security” part of that title is based on the fact that this mission will extensively study the asteroid to learn about its composition and interaction with its surroundings, including the Yarkovsky Effect. Bennu was chosen in part due to the fact that it has a 1-in-1800 chance of impacting the Earth when it passes nearby in the year 2170.

In flight to a distant worldlet and on the hunt, OSIRIS-REX has used its camera systems to search for NEOs. It should arrive at Bennu in August of 2018. A sample probe will be returned to Earth by September of 2023. The samples could shed light on the composition of asteroids. It may also give us some idea as how to thwart an asteroid should we ever detect one on a path to hit us.

According to NASA’s JPL website other scientific objectives of the mission include:

  1. Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
  2. Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
  3. Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to millimeters.
  4. Measure the Yarkovsky Effect on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
  5. Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.

The Yarkovsky Effect is of interest and definitely falls under the “Security” part of the OSIRIS-REX mission. First described in 1900 by Ivan Yarkovsky, the theory relates the thermal effects of sunlight falling on a rotating body in space to tiny forces that are generated on the object’s center of mass. Over time these tiny forces could nudge even a large asteroid into a different orbit. Scientists have studied the idea that by changing the areal coverage or location of sunlight on the surface of an asteroid its course could be adjusted. Given enough of a warning a spacecraft could be sent out to intercept the asteroid. A crew or robots (or both) could paint absorptive material onto an asteroid or deploy reflectors that might increase the level of solar radiation that strikes its surface. These alterations could change the asteroid’s orbit just enough for it to miss Earth.

This is not science fiction. The Deep Impact mission voyaged to the comet Tempel-1 and arrived in 2005. It launched an impactor into the comet. The impactor was a semi-autonomous vehicle that could maneuver and return telemetry and images to Earth. On July 4th 2005 it hit Tempel-1 at a high rate of speed and released the energy equivalent of 5 tons of dynamite. Careful study showed that the comet’s course was altered slightly, with a 10 centimeter adjustment to its perihelion, or closest point of its orbit to the Sun. Follow-on studies by NASA and other organizations have indicated that an impactor strike of this type is perhaps the most mature technology currently available to successfully deflect an inbound asteroid.

So we live in an amazing age. Rather than fearing this hazard, people around the globe are staring it in the face, pooling resources, and coming up with competent strategies. We even have an International Asteroid Day. I think Sir Arthur would approve.

Deep_Impact_HRI
Comet Tempel-1 at the moment of collision with the Deep Impact spacecraft’s impactor probe. Although Tempel-1 is not an asteroid, it definitely experienced a (very tiny) orbital deflection!

“Inching Down”

“Inching Down”

An exclamation mark weaves a curve through Darkness.
It challenges a silent chasm best measured by clocks rather than kilometers.
But that Void offers no roar or blast
Beyond the cold harbingers of Time and Fate and Chance.

When the long silence ends
It is to the vibration of thrusters.
Then point-precise thunder
Channels the chaos of explosive bolts.
Thin air keens its frictional wail beyond the burning aeroshell.

Gravity one-third Earth’s grabs a thin frame
While metal heart knows when the Plummet begins.
A red landscape stretches before unblinking electronic eyes
To glimpse the temptations Ray warned us about.

Those visions are old as Dust
And still so very new
Yet no canals or alabaster cities today
But just as many mysteries.
The Voice that greets us is the whispered harmonic fugue
Between drogue and wind.

And all the while the clocks are running
To mark the moment where we hover, Aflame!
And like a mad mechanical butterfly
On plasma wings Inching Down
Below a ludicrous pink sky where
Only dreamers are allowed to dare.

Wheels touch Mars
But motors do not yet turn.
New to this World we must look
With a plan for each move and meter.
The cameras show sights Unknown
And we plot our trek.
Rock and wind and secrets
All soon Revealed.
To our Curiosity.

 

curiosity landing site
The Mars Curiosity Rover landed at Gale Crater on 6 August 2012 05:17:57 UTC at 4° 35′ 22.2″ S, 137° 26′ 30.12″ E. The above image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It shows the rover landing site as well as various hardware the rover used during its descent.

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

The Workaday Spacewalk

The Workaday Spacewalk

As I write two astronauts are performing a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station. I like to call the ISS “Izzy.” This was a nickname for the station used throughout the novel Seveneves by author Neal Stephenson.  I try to catch the daily updates from Izzy. I find it all very interesting. Currently serving aboard are 6 explorers: 3 Russian cosmonauts named Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzihkov, and Oleg Novitskiy, a French astronaut named Thomas Pesquet, and 2 American astronauts. Currently the spacewalk features the 2 Americans: Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson. Just before lunchtime (EST) Peggy Whitson broke the record for most accumulated spacewalk time for a female astronaut. That’s amazing and I wonder if such records will always be kept.

I’m watching a livestream courtesy of NASA TV. Its nice to full screen it and see all the happenings via the astronauts’ helmet cams. While I hammer out LabVIEW code I pick up voices and glance at images. Their EVA work seems at times strenuous, detail-oriented, and intense. But what is striking me today is how workaday it all seems. I’ve read that astronauts make it all look “easy” because of their long hours of training. I’m sure as in most things practice makes perfect. Yet from my vicarious view over the shoulder of each astronaut today’s deployment of protective covers seems like a routine task being undertaken by two focused yet almost casual professionals. And that sense of normalcy is pretty cool. It’s nice to watch an event where rationality, eagerness, and common-sense rule.

Not that today’s spacewalk was not without incident. One of the covers that was to be deployed went adrift. On the Izzy Cam it became a receding dot against the dark, starless sky. There was brief talk about going to retrieve it but that was ruled out. The tracking team noted it was in a position ahead of the station and poses no “re-contact hazard.” I think that means the lost cover will not become a thing that goes bump in the night.

The team on the ground worked with existing hardware to put together a Plan B. They need to cover up a section of the station’s docking adapter. They opted to use the bag that the covers come in. Shane and Peggy were pretty quick to adapt what materials they had to get the job done. Listening in, the casual viewer might not have known that anything had gone awry. No worries, I heard Shane say. Pretty cool.

The spacewalk continues and my workaday salad is now depleted. Back to the lab with me as Peggy, Shane, and company circle the Earth. Keep up the good work, you guys!

Attitude Hold

Attitude Hold

Last week saw several memorials to fallen astronauts, beginning with what may be the last “official” gathering to remember the crew of Apollo 1, who were lost in 1967. None of these lives were lost in vain, which is easier to say if you did not have a friend or family member among them. Still, such people as Gus Grissom or Judy Resnick or Mike Anderson cause us groundsiders to look up and wonder, and try a little harder, and remember that the Earth is a very small place. They helped all of us take tentative steps toward the promise of a better future. And in that, I think, is their memorial. Worlds without end.

Below is a short story I wrote a few years back during the flight of STS-135. It was published in the anthology magazine Infinities 4 in 2011.

“Sisters”

It wasn’t a very big telescope, as telescopes went. It was a stout barrel and it held a ten inch lens. That sounded impressive unless you compared it with the big professional telescopes at places like Kitt Peak, Mount Wilson, or that astronomer’s paradise known as Mauna Kea. So be it, it was the resource we had and like all resources Uncle Ty put it to good use. You could always count on him to do that, scavenge a thing declared useless and then turn it into gold.

He had found the big Meade at a garage sale, sitting forlornly amid lawnmower parts and plastic storage bins. A lifelong amateur astronomer, he paid the asking price of $500 and opted to eat potatoes, beans, and toast for the rest of that month. Never married and 57 years old, the single life allowed such impulses. That had been some years ago. Other budgetary as well as gastronomic sacrifices allowed him to accumulate a collection of hardware and instruments: all astronomical both in price and end-use. Ty asked a perplexed buddy who owned a Sawz-All to cut the roof off an old shed that sat in the far corner of his backyard. Once rollers and weatherproofing were added it made a very neat and passable observatory. He could be found there most evenings when he wasn’t working some night shift at the nearby paper plant.

As we lived on the adjoining property my sister and I got to visit him often. The winters were a bit more challenging than the summers, but at least when it was cold the bugs weren’t biting. And, oh, how those winter stars burned in the sky! Uncle Ty taught us the names of almost all of them. My mother, Ty’s baby sister, would insist we not stay out too late. But the siblings had worked out a call system via the intercom Ty had created between our houses. Thus, unknown to us until much later, our arrivals and departures were well-monitored.

One summer, Uncle Ty had alerted us for several days to the thing that would be in the sky that night. It was always some surprise: a comet or planet or oddball piece of space junk. And typically fuzzy, even in a telescope as large as Ty’s. You had to squint or look out the side of your eye or even imagine what he described. Sometimes wonders, Ty would joke, and sometime blunders.

Yet some of the planets he showed us burned into the back of your mind: ruddy Mars with its pale ice caps, crescent Venus, striped Jupiter and once even a tiny, embryo-like Saturn with razor-sharp rings. And he could find little jewels of stars or clusters of fog or bright new suns that clung together like orphaned children. Thus we ran greedily down the footpath that led from our big old house to Uncle Ty’s trailer. Above us the sky stood clear and bright and the backbone arch of the Milky Way curved from east to west. All those marvels above would soon be siphoned down through the lens of Ty’s telescope.

Just for us.

We rounded the trailer and past his antique Olds Delta 88. The lights inside the trailer were dimmed by a rheostat. Yet as we passed the aluminum-framed windows you could see his Hall of Fame. Colorful patches lined the walls just beneath the ceiling. Each was no more than 4-inches across but all were miniature works of art. They were mission patches from NASA projects like Gemini and Apollo and a big tin can with a windmill that had been called Skylab.

The bulk of the patches were for the Space Shuttle. We all knew about that. Our science teacher had a little model of the winged space ship in her classroom. The shuttle rode into space on five rocket motors and clung to the back of a fuel tank that was painted the color of a Florida tangerine. When its trip was done it came back to Earth like a glider. Two space shuttles had been destroyed. My buddy Glenn really latched on to that fact. He admired anything that blew up. Otherwise he hated science class.

“Hey Ty!” my sister and I called as we ran past the tall hedges and up to the observatory. Ty poked his long horsy face out the door. In the red light he used to protect his night vision he looked lean and gaunt. On Halloween you might have said spooky. His crooked smile dispelled any scariness. Even Camille, my kid sister, wasn’t scared of the observatory and all its weird equipment anymore.

“Hey Joe, hey Cammie,” Ty replied. When we were alone he didn’t mind if we didn’t call him “uncle.” At twelve it made me feel like we were all grown-ups and on an equal footing. But when Mom was around we called him Uncle Ty otherwise she would pitch a fit. Mom was a big churchgoer, and by default had high expectations regarding our level of manners when it came to kin or strangers. ‘Nuff said on that subject, I suppose.

“Can you see anything yet?” I asked.

“Soon. I have everything lined up,” Ty said in a baritone that seemed as smooth as the purr of the car engines he was always working on. He had two Oldsmobiles that were over 40 years old. He kept their big V8s in mint condition. When winter hit the North Country he’d park them in storage until the twin demons of snow and salt went away. Occasionally the VFW would ask him to drive one or the other in a village parade.

He called the old cars Challenger and Columbia. After the two shuttles, of course. Framed photos of the lost crews from each ship hung in the little observatory. I often studied those faces. They looked like brave people, but also kind. Scientists and pilots who were also moms and dads, aunts and uncles. Something in their eyes made them sort of young-looking, even if they were really old people. I don’t know how else to describe them.

“Just waiting for it to drop into view,” Ty said and then looked toward the western horizon. This early in July you had to stay up late before the sun’s light was totally gone from the sky. A smudge on the horizon was all that remained of the sun now. Stars owned the night. And something else…

“Is that it?” Cammie asked. I marveled. She was getting better at spotting things in the night sky than me! Her count for meteors totally outstripped my own, even allowing for the few that we both made up when the other’s back was turned. Meteors were lightning-quick. Like stray thoughts or memories from when you were very little.

I looked in the direction she was pointing. A bright star was rising silently above the horizon. It looked like a dazzling flare and rivaled anything else crowding the sky above Uncle Ty’s trailer. It swept eastward. Usually you would see a light and it would be some airplane heading toward the little airport in Fulton. But not this. No, it moved with a relentless energy all its own and you actually held your breath as it cut across the heavens above you. It was as silent as the star-crowded sky, and that very sky seemed to part ways in order to let it pass.

“There’s Icy,” Cammie said informatively. That is what she had always called the International Space Station. We stood rooted as the ISS, that lonely human outpost, passed above us. I wondered who was there tonight and if they were looking down at us right now.

“Right you are,” Ty said. He got busy then. He dimmed the red lights and re-checked his home-built PC. Cables ran from the boxy computer to the camera that hung like an afterthought from the eyepiece of the telescope. The camera was a heavy arrangement and had to be counter-weighted by an old peanut butter jar filled with lead shot. That was so the ‘scope wouldn’t slew over on its mount. It was a delicate balance and Ty had the arrangement perfected.

Once, when Dad caught a break from his work schedule he came over to Ty’s and looked around the observatory. “It’s all a patchwork,” Dad said, laughing. “But if you say it works, I guess it works. Sure a sight. Wouldn’t stand down at the plant, though.”

Ty just shrugged and smiled. “Perfection is the enemy of just good enough,” he said. That was sort of Ty’s motto. And he lived by it. He had had some college. Physics, Mom said. But the tuition money had run out and the city where he lived got a little too busy for him. So one day he just packed up and headed home for the North Country.

“He was always clever,” Mom had told us once. “As good as any college grad, I guess. He can sure talk like one, anyway. All those books he reads.” Then she would sigh, almost wearily. “I suppose he could be off doing all those space things he’s so fond of,” she would say. “But you know he’s just content to fiddle and play around and be who he is.”

Ty turned a knob and scanned the western horizon. He checked the PC and camera one more time. He kept a split eye-piece at what he called “the business end of the telescope.” Thus he could peek through an eye-piece and see the night sky at the same time that the camera was scanning it. That set-up had cost him more than the telescope itself, he had said. Special order through some optics manufacturer. Another month of beans on toast.

“There it is,” he whispered. He hit a switch and the telescope began to track. Another one of Uncle Ty’s modifications made special just to let the old ‘scope chase spacecraft. On the PC a little blob of light at the center of the screen grew. It resolved into a triangular shape. The space shuttle Atlantis winged through the cosmos. Cammie and I breathed a collective “ohhhh.”

It was the Last Shuttle, Ty had said. The last mission of over one hundred that had flown. For the last decade most of the missions had been dedicated to building the ISS. Now the shuttles were being retired. The proud ships would become museum pieces. Except for the two that had challenged the sky and been destroyed.

“It’s chasing Icy,” Cammie said.

Ty smiled. “Yup. Like a hound after a rabbit. That ship’s hauling the mail. The last supply run to the ISS. It’s a short visit at the space station and then back home for the crew.”

“The last one,” I said. “Ever.”

Ty shrugged. “Something will replace the shuttle. Someone somewhere is always working on the next big thing.” Mom said Uncle Ty was always talking about the Next Big Thing.

Atlantis rose in the dark sky above us, a bright jewel among distant stars. A meteor crossed heaven somewhere in its wake. A startling sight and one we goggled at. Another confirmed meteor that Cammie and I would add to our count! The Atlantis Meteor we would later call it.

“Can I run the telescope?” Cammie asked.

I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Cammie always wanted to “run the telescope” no matter what was going on. And Ty would always let her. Even if it might mess up whatever he was observing. “I’m not publishing any of this data,” he would say. And then just laugh.

Cammie stepped up to the eyepiece and her small hand adjusted the focus knob. The barely defined triangular shape on the screen became an irregular blob. Then she adjusted the knob in the other direction. Just when Atlantis went back into focus Cammie overcompensated.

Suddenly there was three of everything on the screen. But most especially three shuttles. Atlantis hung in the middle, but now one fuzzy duplicate shuttle flew just ahead of it and another followed. It looked like a flying formation of space shuttles. Like some sort of cosmic air show. I shook my head. Leave it to Cammie.

“Whups,” Cammie said, looking at the screen. “Now there are three. I’ll fix it.”

But Uncle Ty put his hand on Cammie’s shoulder and whispered, “Wait.” His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him over the whine of the tracking motor. He stared at the screen for a long time. Then his eyes went to the two photos on the observatory wall. The lost crews of Columbia and Challenger looked back at him. Overhead, Atlantis winged its way to the east, a tiny bubble of air and light and life.

On the screen the three images continued to fly in formation. A glitch in the focal alignment, surely. A product of old optics and my sister’s untrained hand.

Cammie turned to look up at Ty, her hair dropping across one eye. “I’ll fix it,” she said and her voice was as soft as the night.

“No,” Uncle Ty said quietly. “Tonight I think we’ll let Atlantis fly with her sisters.”

~fin~

Note the featured artwork is called “Attitude Hold” by Kim Poor, 1986

Mars

Mars

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth…

from “The Long Road”

It’s October, and more than any month it seems like a time that is primed and ready for our distant, mysterious neighbor. Sure, March is named after the Roman god of war, and I’ve seen the planet stand ruddy in the sky even in the spring. It has also stood bright as any ornament at Yule and chased its fellow planets across the ecliptic during the shortest of those warm, dreamy summer nights.

But if you think of the fascination, mystery, and downright spookiness of the planet it seems a place of eternal autumn. The fall is that point in time when…on the terrestrial plane at least…life weakens, withers, or takes flight. We come to the Red Planet not in its spring or full summer, now epochs past, but in the lateness of its planetary fall. Our probes and rovers taste what once was, smell what might have been, behold the crumbling facades of rock walls and traceries of rivers that run like echoes into the ocher dust. In those carefully crafted mechanical hands our robotic explorers hold the faintest, barely tangible evidence of an ecosystem that might have once harbored life.

Giovanni Schiaparelli caught glimpses of reality through his telescope. In a poignant, honest attempt to quantify this mysterious world he described in dry publications what his eye beheld. When reporting surface features in 1877 he used the term for line which in Italian is canali. What was an honest description became misunderstood and when mistranslated into English the word canali became canal. Suddenly Mars, in its barrenness, became a place of wonder. Theories grew up around these canals and many came to believe that a vast Martian civilization was a certainty. Percival Lowell spent his fortune and his life in part pursuing this dream. By 1908 he had published several books of observation and speculation regarding life on Mars.

And he wasn’t alone. A young mid-western transplant growing up in Los Angeles felt his imagination catch fire one day while reading about Mars in his local public library. If any modern author’s name is synonymous with the Red Planet it would be Ray Bradbury. Alight from the stories of Burroughs, Conan-Doyle, and many a western dime novel the young Bradbury crafted a wealth of tales around missions to the arid plains of Mars. The fiction he created in the 1940s and 50s featured a vast Martian civilization where alabaster cities crumbled along the banks of shallow canals. The humans in these stories were as far from their home on Earth as the young Bradbury was from his native Illinois. The human settlers eked out a living amid mystery and caught the occasional glimpse of those from whom they had both wrested and inherited an entire world.

But whether in the sciences, writing, or the imagination Mars has always been there in the sky, beckoning. In 1964 the first Mariner probes were being readied for launch on flyby missions to the Red Planet. One map used for planning was provided by the Air Force and featured the Mars of many a careful observational campaign. It is the black and white map seen above. Drawn from existing data in 1962, the map features varied shades and surface markings and no few mysterious lines that seemingly depict canals.

Launched in November of 1964 Mariner 4 would be the first probe to fly past Mars and capture precious surface photographs. In July of 1965 the first bits of data were downloaded at JPL in Pasadena. It could be said that in the moment when Mariner 4 flew past Mars a chapter was turned. Barsoom was forever gone and a new era of planetology had arrived. Instantly, the Mars of Lowell, Burroughs, and Bradbury evaporated like so much tenuous frost before the distant sun.

Mariner 4 showed us that Mars was a cratered desert world, with miserly polar caps and giant mountains that bespoke a geologic history now frozen in time. It was a fascinating place, surely, and as broad and rich in its unique history as was the Earth. But there were no canals or lost cities. The search for life on Mars would continue, but those in the vanguard of that search would have to go deeper, look harder, and seek their answers in stubborn rock and volatile chemical signals.

Fast forward to last week and Elon Musk of the company SpaceX was at the IAU General Conference in Guadalajara. He spoke both humbly and optimistically of a bold concept to send humans to Mars with the goal of seeing a manned landing in 10 years. The program offered only a high level view of this concept, complete with PowerPoint slides and impressive CGI renderings of this vision. Mr. Musk described round-trip rockets that could carry a hundred people to Mars. He envisioned the growth of early outposts into cities that could eventually be home to thousands, possibly millions. He even showed some of the technology SpaceX is developing, including a rocket and a composite fuel tank. The rocket had been tested the day before and the fuel tank was as big as a house. The message was clear: SpaceX is bending tin.

Yet despite my skepticism there was enough of a grounding to it that, combined with SpaceX’s reputation, I felt a flutter of anticipation I have not known since reading Bradbury when I was a kid. Mars is an enormous challenge and I will apply Occam’s Razor to this plan. Yet even if SpaceX completes a small fraction of what it purports to do, that attempt, no matter how fledgling, offers great promise.

Imagination does not fuel rockets. However experience, common sense, hard work, money, and optimism do. I wish Mr. Musk and SpaceX only the best in their endeavor. Perhaps we are on our way to becoming the Martians of whom we once dreamed.

murray-buttes